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Evaluating the results of innovation prizes for development: reflections and recommendations from practice

The incidence of using prizes (of any kind) to achieve social and development goals is increasing (Evanoff, 2018). And yet there is a dearth of information on how to evaluate prizes for development and thus a lack of evidence that prizes represent an effective and appropriate funding alternative for achieving development outcomes, as a driver of innovation and behaviour change.

There are few examples in the public domain of how prize funders, managers and evaluators have approached this and with what results (Roberts et al., 2019). There is a gap in the literature in terms of prize evaluation reports – either these evaluations are not happening, or they are not being made public. Where evaluations and internal reports on prizes are available, these often lack detail on how the evaluation was carried out and they take award of prize money as the end of the story.

This paper aims to fill this gap by sharing our experiences of evaluating a set of prizes over the last five years. With the purpose of guiding and informing future evaluations of prizes for development, it draws out implications, lessons and recommendations for those funding, commissioning, managing and undertaking evaluations of prizes. The paper may also be of interest to the broader evaluation community, for example to inform the evaluation of initiatives with similar features to prizes, such as challenge funds and results-based financing.

This paper is based on our collective experience of designing and conducting evaluations and follow-up reviews of seven prize schemes,2 together comprising a total of 13 separate prizes. From 2014 to 2019, the Ideas to Impact (I2I) action-research programme has been designing, implementing and testing a series of innovation prizes, to induce innovative solutions to development challenges within the thematic areas of climate change adaptation (CCA), energy access, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The programme was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented by a consortium led by IMC Worldwide. See Annex 1 for a summary of the I2I prizes and Annex 2 for a list of the evaluations conducted.

As the evaluation and learning partner for the prize programme, Itad has been supporting the I2I programme team and funder throughout to understand if these innovation prizes worked as intended, by providing an impartial view of the results obtained.3 Together, the set of evaluations aimed to identify broader lessons on when and where prizes could be useful as a funding mechanism for international development, compared to other forms of funding, such as grants.

We first outline our approach to evaluating the I2I prizes and reflect on our evaluation experiences. On this basis, we consider what makes evaluating prizes different, and what prize evaluations can and cannot say about change. We then suggest broader implications and provide lessons and recommendations for evaluating future prizes for development.

This is one of a series of learning papers that draws across the I2I prize evaluations to provide insight into the value and use of innovation prizes to development. The two companion reports are signposted throughout.